updated 10/17/2006 11:16:40 AM ET 2006-10-17T15:16:40

Ethiopia and Eritrea traded accusations Tuesday, a day after the U.N. accused Eritrea of moving troops and tanks into a buffer zone established after the Horn of Africa rivals went to war over their still disputed border.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been strained since their war ended six years ago. More recently, tensions on the Horn have increased because of unrest in Somalia, with Eritrea and Ethiopia supporting opposing factions there.

Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Solomon Abebe said that this was not the first time Eritrea has violated the terms of the cease-fire between the two nations.

"Eritrea has repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreement," he said, citing severe restrictions the Eritrean government has placed on U.N. peacekeepers. "Regarding the current situation on the ground, Ethiopia is carefully monitoring the situation."

The United Nations accused Eritrea on Monday of moving 1,500 troops and 14 tanks into the buffer zone established after the 2 1/2-year border war, calling it "a major breach" of a cease-fire agreement reached in 2000.

Eritrean troops took over one U.N. checkpoint and forced a platoon of Jordanian peacekeepers to leave, said U.N. officials.

Annan's plea
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Eritrean government to withdraw its troops from the buffer zone immediately, and to cooperate with the United Nations in restoring the cease-fire arrangements, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Yemani Ghebremeskel, director of Eritrean President Isaias Aferwerki's office, dismissed the accusations and said that Ethiopia was in violation of their peace deal for failing to accept an international ruling to demarcate their common border.

"This is not a provocative act," Yemani told The Associated Press by telephone from the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

"This is sovereign Eritrean territory, so how can this be a breach of a cease-fire agreement? This statement is rubbish because it has no sense of balance and does not talk about the 1,001 times that Ethiopia has violated the agreement by forcefully occupying our territory," Yemani said.

The Eritrean presidential aide said that the soldiers had entered the western border region to carry out development work and the tanks had accompanied them for protection. "An army is an army and needs protection," said Yemani.

Eritrea's move may be part of a regional strategy to place military pressure on Ethiopia. The United Nations reported earlier this year that Eritrea has sent weapons to a radical Islamic group that has been increasing its power in Somalia and that opposes Ethiopia's moves to prop up Somalia's internationally backed government.

By moving troops closer to the border, Eritrea could be aiming to keep Ethiopian troops tied up there so that they cannot move into Somalia. Ethiopia would presumably want to avoid trouble on two fronts, but Eritrea's action raised the threat of renewed war between the feuding neighbors.

Strain in relations
Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been strained since Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 following a 30-year rebel war.

A 3,800-strong U.N. peacekeeping force has been monitoring a 15-mile (24-kilometer) wide, 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) long buffer zone between Eritrea and Ethiopia under a December 2000 peace agreement that ended the border war.

In apparent frustration at Ethiopia's refusal to implement a binding ruling on their disputed border, and the lack of U.N. action to pressure Ethiopia to comply, Eritrea banned U.N. helicopter flights in its airspace in October 2005. Two months later, it banned U.N. night patrols and expelled Western peacekeepers.

The international boundary commission's ruling in 2002 awarded the town of Badme to Eritrea, but Ethiopia has refused to accept the decision even though the two countries had agreed that the boundary commission ruling will be binding.

There was no immediate information on how far into the buffer zone the Eritrean troops and tanks had moved in the incursion reported Monday. There was also no information on whether Eritrea had massed additional troops and military hardware on the border.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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